British vocalist, guitarist, and pianist Julia Biel and her band brought melancholic jazz-tinged pop songs to Max at Eastman Place on Wednesday night. Amidst her brooding original songs, Biel's vocal aesthetic was often hushed, intimate, and confessional. Though she clearly has a powerful voice, she never overstated her case, singing with a controlled tone that was somehow both breathy and substantive. Biel's light, almost whimsical approach to intonation and phrasing recalled the idiosyncrasies and innate tunefulness of indie singers like Anaïs Mitchell and Regina Spektor.
Unfortunately, the individual songs did little to separate themselves from another. Virtually all the compositions were mid-tempo or slower, and the monochromatic mood of unrequited love pervaded, resulting in a limited emotional palette.
In addition to the original songs, Biel sang a pretty rendition of Nina Simone's "Feeling Good," but it had no bite, no sense of the struggle amidst darker times since left behind. In this way, the cover song was representative of Biel's entire set: beautiful music ultimately lacking in gravitas.
You can still catch Julia Biel and company at Christ Church at 6:45 p.m. and 8:45 p.m. today as part of the " Made in the UK" series.
If anything, the Polish ensemble known as the High Definition Quartet was at the other end of the spectrum -- all gravitas and very few traditionally beautiful melodies. Instead, the band took jazz harmonies, textures, and mannerisms and married them to a contemporary classical approach to timbre, structure, and attitude.
The most pertinent example of this hybrid was the exquisite performance of pianist Piotr Orzechowski, whose stunning post-minimalist interludes evoked Terry Riley's "Keyboard Studies" and Timothy Andres's 2010 album "Shy and Mighty." It would have been something to hear Orzechowski perform a solo set at Hatch Recital Hall, but the quartet dynamic provided plenty of opportunity for the pianist, as well as the other members of the ensemble, to shine.
With uncanny chemistry, Orzechowski and the rhythm section displayed astounding speed and precision as tenor saxophonist Mateusz Sliwa condensed the ecstatic energy of jazz into concise, sharp solo phrasing.
For those looking for a more conventional sound, the music was likely too polarizing, as the end of each composition saw handfuls of listeners leave the sanctuary at the Lutheran Church of the Reformation. But the genius of the High Definition Quartet was its fusion of jazz sonorities with avant-garde dissonances. If 20th-century composer Igor Stravinsky were alive today and leading a small jazz ensemble, it would sound like this -- rhythmically precise, harmonically exotic, and far more interested in sound textures than in catchy melodies.
Though it may sound as if the music was highly cerebral, the net result was actually elemental, base, and earthy. The High Definition Quartet exuded viscerality like no other group I've witnessed at the festival this year, and it was a complete surprise. And while Julia Biel's set left me feeling a bit detached emotionally, the quartet's intensity enabled me to connect again.
If I could choose only one venue, the Lutheran Church of the Reformation consistently proves to be the setting for some of the festival's most intriguing and thought-provoking performances. Fortunately, there are still three more days left to go.